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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Critical Thinking

Setting as Character

I mentioned using setting as character last week, and resolved to figure out what that meant. It’s not easy to braid all the different elements of a story together—characters, actions, plot, setting, dialogue. Many authors tend to just skip one or more and simplify. When I do that, setting is the first to go.

It’s been said, and I’ve repeated it here, that Louis L’Amour is considered a great example of how to wrap setting into a story. When I first read that, I thought they meant use setting as a plot element—the characters have to fight or work with nature as part of the plot line. But I think maybe setting acts more like a character; there are very few instances in which nature or setting plays the major role in the plot of a story. You might argue that Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is one. But even in the movie Cast Away, the island and the relentless ocean interact with the character as another character. He must struggle against it and escape from it, but the setting itself isn’t the plot. (Feel free to argue this point!)

I turn on my Kindle, and Louis L’Amour pops up. Maj Tom must have been reading it this morning. Here’s a sample:

There were junipers beyond the ridge, and broken boulders upon the ridge itself. In less than a minute he could cross the ridge and be in the shelter of those junipers, and if he took his time and made no sudden moves to attract the eye, he might easily cross the ridge without being seen.

Okay, aside from using the word “ridge” too much, here’s a character, Hondo, interacting with his surroundings as a character.

Setting as character means it isn’t just the backdrop. That would be like actors working against a green screen. If the action could take place anywhere, it might be worth re-thinking the scene. What’s the difference between the characters walking down a road and hiking on a trail? If the scene could be written either way with little change, rethink it. Have the people interact with the setting—trip over roots or see the cows that lead them to a memory that adds depth to the story. I’m in a coffee shop, now. How is that relevant to the scene? A guy two tables over has been passionately explaining exegesis and Mormonism and politics to an older couple for the last hour and a half. That’s been distracting. A cup on the table in front of me holds the remnants of a fruit parfait I had for breakfast; smudges of the yogurt still cling to the keys on my laptop, making my fingertip catch a bit on the “J.” This particular coffee shop is known for regulars and writers. I know I can go to the bathroom without someone stealing my computer.

When I think about the setting, it makes my writing more alive. I tend to use a lot of “he turned…” and “she looked up…” If I take the time to think about where they are, instead of turning, he can pick at the dried gum under the table. Or she can feel the drops of water that fall from the cedar branches. Instead of describing the restaurant the hero walks into, I can talk about the chipped paint on the door, the large, red-nosed man sitting at the tiny table with an espresso cup in his huge hand, the waitress with black flared pants and a slim-lined apron that hangs to her shins.

In action scenes, this could get too laden. You want the action to come quicker, the sentences shorter. If possible, you could work in the description of the setting prior to the action. In my WIP, the hero chases after two men and attacks one in the lobby of a clinic. But he’s already taken time to enter the building, stand before the receptionist desk, ride the elevator up. The setting is established, and when he tackles the villain, throwing them both behind the receptionist desk, (hopefully!) the readers will already have their bearings.

Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? I don’t! I’m just getting this. Often, I’d write the story and then go back and add descriptions. That doesn’t really work. It turns out to be a bunch of characters “turning” and “looking” mixed in with dialogue and bland descriptions of a room or a corridor. I tend to use corridors a lot. Don’t know what’s up with that. But now I know to mention the buzzing lights or the stars outside the porthole or the cigarette burn in the thread-bare carpet—and how each of these things affects the POV character.

How about you? How do you use setting? Do you tend to write stories that could happen anywhere? Is there really anything wrong with that? How could you use your setting as a character? How does thinking of setting as a character change the way you see your WIP?

Kersley Fitzgerald is a wannabe writer in Colorado Springs who saw The Green Hornet last Saturday and loved it. Do you still respect her?
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